From his beginnings as a draftsman and painter, William Bradford sought to portray his scenes with the greatest accuracy. "A block or line of rigging out of place, a mast set too forward or aft, the improper location of boat davits and deck furniture, or sloppy rendering of a figurehead would not escape scrutiny..." (R.C. Kugler, William Bradford: Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas, New Bedford, Massachusetts, 2003, p. 6) Bradford was born in Salem on the North Shore of Massachusetts and raised in the whaling town of New Bedford, near Cape Cod. Surrounded by water and wharves throughout his youth, Bradford became well acquainted with the details of the ships and their sailors as well as the movement and the effect of light against the water.
In the beginning of his career, Bradford was a successful ship portraitist, selling works to owners of vessels and shipmasters. As noted by a critic from the Boston Atlas, "Mr. Bradford has a good eye for naval architecture, and his 'portraits,' had they other merit, would be distinguished for their fidelity. This is especially remarkable in the facility with which [he] seizes upon the peculiar construction of the model; but at the same time it may be seen in the accuracy with which he realizes every part of the ship, even to a block or bulwark. The sea and atmosphere are also well rendered; and the general effect is that of an agreeable picture." (William Bradford: Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas, p. 6) By the end of the 1850s, Bradford had evolved his subject matter and style from ship portraitist to what his best works are now recognized to be--"detailed presentation of vessels, naturally set on the waters where he found them, often framed by headlands or shoreside wharves and structures." (William Bradford: Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas, p. 12)
Bradford's first voyage out of Cape Cod took place in July 1856 to the island of Grand Manan and the Bay of Fundy between Maine and Nova Scotia. The artist returned there on a later sail in 1860. The present painting, Sunset Calm in the Bay of Fundy, painted circa 1860, depicts fishermen collecting the last of the day's catch under a glowing sunset sky. The work exemplifies Bradford's mastery of detail and light. The artist has carefully rendered every aspect of the scene. The lines, the masts and the hulls of the boats are painted with precision, as are the fishermen pulling at the lines. Bradford has captured the men in a moment of action while taking care to portray each figure's clothing. The artist has also painted ships that are barely noticeable in the distance, each reflected in the calm water of the bay. Bradford's works are also known for their luminosity, particularly seen later in his Arctic paintings. In Sunset Calm in the Bay of Fundy, the sun hangs heavily at the horizon, changing the sky from blue to gold to orange and reflecting off the water in a brilliant yellow. As the sun sets, there is a feeling of a long day ending--the resplendent sun is about to disappear behind the horizon as it bathes the tranquil bay and the fishermen who are pulling up their last lines in its glow.
Boston sculptor Thomas R. Gould noted of Bradford, "the young Quaker, with his marine views, excellent, projecting on gray, and heaving and foamy seas, red flannel shirts, blue caps and brown hands of fishermen, with lines and glints of intense light upon the water--even as Art embosses with lustrous color the neutral tints of his Theology." (William Bradford: Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas, p. 14) With its spectacular light, color and details, Sunset Calm in the Bay of Fundy demonstrates Bradford's mastery as he successfully combines the sky and water in a beautiful, harmonious and flawless composition.